Mr. Monopoly, the erstwhile Rich Uncle Pennybags, couldn’t see anything through his enormous round mask. His handlers were tasked with leading him around, making sure he didn’t bump into anyone, and manually turning his head in one direction or another. “He hasn’t aged a bit, has he?” an older man asked me, and I agreed; at a lithe 6’6”, Mr. Monopoly’s vision issues are probably the only thing preventing him from dunking on a regulation hoop.
We were on the thirtieth floor of a building just off Times Square, celebrating World Monopoly Day with drinks, hors d’oeuvres and Monopoly Empire, a new iteration of the famous game that replaces Atlantic City streets with brands (eBay, Polaroid), and game tokens with additional brands (Xbox Controller, Transformer Head). As far as I can tell, Monopoly Day was first celebrated on March 19, 2015. It is not to be confused with National Play Monopoly Day, which is November 19.
After my arrival I tried to lay low, ordering a beer and watching Mr. Monopoly get led around. Two people asked me what I was doing there, and eventually I was sat next to a friendly married couple and a Jersey guy; we were to be pitted against each other Monopoly-style. My beer finally arrived, and after being given a copy of the rules and told it was “a lot like regular Monopoly,” the four of us were left to fend for ourselves.
They were right: It’s a lot like regular Monopoly. When a player buys a corporation after landing on it, its tile is added to their “tower,” increasing its value by between $50 and $250. Whoever’s tower reaches a certain height/value first wins. When you land on a brand owned by another player, you must pay them the entire value of their tower. If someone runs out of money, they have to pay up in property, but there’s no real consequence to going bankrupt.
Resolving the most popular complaint about traditional Monopoly, a round of Monopoly Empire only takes about half an hour to complete. I initially guessed that this was a stab at competing with the rising tide of Eurogames but, via community chest-style cards and a dice roll that permits a player to instantly steal another player’s topmost brand, Monopoly Empire takes a large amount of skill out of what was already a pretty luck-driven format. As soon as we all got comfortable with the rules, the married couple understandably began colluding. The Jersey guy and I never stood a chance.
Despite its streamlined ruleset, the metaphor at the heart of Monopoly Empire is somewhat unclear. Many of the brands in Monopoly Empire aren’t even discrete companies one could buy if they wanted to (Xbox, for example), so the vibe leans pretty heavily on the potential appeal of amassing a bunch of famous, unrelated ads. Without the blank-canvas veneer of property ownership, Monopoly Empire is just sort of a pile of billboards with a Monopoly blanket thrown over it.
I like to think I’m as immune to advertising overload as the next person who walked through Midtown to attend a media event, but Monopoly Empire asked me to get psyched because I—someone who has never driven a tractor in my life—stole a real-life tractor company from someone else and put it in a giant building alongside a bunch of unrelated companies. Beyond people just being excited to see a list of things they’ve heard of, it’s hard to see the appeal. I tried to approach Monopoly Empire in good faith, and felt like I was expected to trade my nostalgia for allegiance to Billboard.
Shortly after our second game concluded (the married couple split them), a Hasbro employee billed as a Monopoly Brand Ambassador stood up to say some words. He informed us that Monopoly had been a “favorite brand of [his] since [he] was a kid.” (Imagine being a kid and having a “favorite brand,” or how strange it would be to hear a kid tell you something was her “favorite brand.”)
I watched two attendants escort Mr. Monopoly into the bathroom arm-in-arm.
Eventually, a Robert Pollard-looking guy in the corner started asking very specific questions about the Monopoly franchise; a Hasbro employee answered very quickly, in very specific detail. Hasbro acquired Monopoly from Parker Bros. in 1981. An all-digital, debit-card version of Monopoly Empire will be released later this year. There are currently 34 varieties of Monopoly on the market. I got my picture taken with Mr. Monopoly, got my coat, and took an elevator back down to Times Square.
Monopoly Empire and Times Square: They exist in their current iterations in part because they feel like they’ve always existed. They’ve been overexposed enough to be tied psychically to some deep part of America, but ultimately they’re both empty: their Byzantine rules disguise a bedrock of tedium, inevitability and exhaustion. Their European counterparts have better architecture. Nobody except tourists really goes unless it’s for work, or their families are around.
Joe Bernardi is a writer and web developer living in Brooklyn. His words have appeared in Dusted Magazine, the Boston Phoenix and Tiny Mix Tapes, among other places. He’s got both a Twitter and a blog.